Waking and Sleeping

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By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve come to think of those first and last moments of consciousness, before I rise in the morning, and before I drift off to sleep, as important bookends of my day. Too easily, I pick up the phone at the beginning of the day to check the news. Too easily, I end the day drifting off to sleep mid-sentence in whatever I’m reading.

So I’ve started two simple practices:

  1. When I awaken, before I do anything else besides shut off the alarm, I lay still and give thanks for God’s protection through the night and offer him myself and my day, including the specifics of it I know as well as all the things that will occur about which I don’t.
  2. And before I go to bed, rather than read, I simply take the last moments of consciousness to review the day, to thank God for all his mercies, to offer anything up that remains undone even though I am for the day, and to trust myself to his care.

I’ve been thinking more of late of how much of my days I go through without consciously being aware of God. I still find myself far from the Apostle Paul’s “praying without ceasing.” Sometimes perhaps, it is just a brain that finds it hard to be engaged both with the matters of the moment and to engage with God. But I suspect there are deeper habits of being that play into all this.

For now at least, I want to get the bookends in place. Then, perhaps, I can work on what is between them.

 

Could One Be Both Spiritual and Religious?

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By Sebd – Own work, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

For some time now, I’ve noted the growing distinction between being spiritual and being religious, including this recent Vox article noting that at least one in five Americans identify as “spiritual.”. Like so many things, this is framed as a binary–you are either one or the other, and increasingly the choice is “spiritual.” It is true, as the article notes, that many who identify as spiritual maintain some religious affiliation, but participate much less in the religious observances of that tradition, and do not find “religion” as meaningful in their lives.

Those who are “spiritual” describe some kind of sense of a higher power and connectedness to the world, often experiencing spiritual experience in art, nature, music, personal rituals like yoga. It’s striking to me how importance beauty is in this contemporary spirituality. It seems that for many, their experience with formal religion was one laced with ugliness–rigid uniformity of belief or practice, hypocrisy, or simply dullness.

What I find interesting in all this is that I’ve never felt I had to make a choice. I am religious in the sense of worshiping weekly with a community that I’ve been a part of for twenty-seven years. We break bread together, sing together, wrestle together in figuring out how to apply the teachings of the Bible in our daily lives, and serve together. It’s not been perfect, because none of us in this community is perfect. We’ve fought, we’ve differed, we’ve sometimes parted. But we’ve prayed for the sick and brought in meals, we’ve fed the hungry, helped needy schoolchildren with lunches during the summer and school supplies. All of this is “religious” in the sense of being “bound” (from which the word religion derives, related to the word “ligament”) to a group of people with whom I share beliefs, practices, and life, and to the God we worship together.

I’m also “spiritual” in some of the senses described in this article. I believe we encounter God in everything from the very ordinary practices of brushing our teeth and caring for our homes to creating a painting or singing “Messiah” or other transcendently beautiful pieces of music. I find wonder in the creation, whether in the coneflowers in my own garden, or the particular beauties of oceans, forests, and mountains.

At the same time, my “religion” nourishes and enriches my spirituality. As Dorothy Sayers once asserted, “the dogma is the drama.” My faith tells me that the beauty I rejoice in in the world is the artistry of a Master, and that it would be folly to worship the artistry instead of the Artist. My faith doesn’t just tell me to love people in general but binds me in a particular community, challenging me to lean into the hard work of loving real people who stubbornly remain themselves and not the people I want them to be. My faith faces me with the ugliness of my sin and all the ways I deceive myself into thinking I’m better than I am, and shows me the way to forgiveness, and what I might become through grace.

I’ve also come to appreciate the specificity of the things my faith tells me about my God who is not a vague “higher power” but a personal being. I love and care about words, and it makes eminent sense that a personal being might be able to communicate God’s self in words as well, as the source of our own communicative abilities. And with this is the capacity for real relationship, and one that, perhaps even more than in human relationships, I cannot simply conform to my wishes.

In the end, the religious ties that “bind” me actually free me to engage with a God to whom I may speak freely or be silent and who I cannot make in my image. I am freed to be in a community where I have a group of people to whom I belong. I am freed to tend and serve a world of beauty. All the beauties and transcendent experiences of life make greater sense in pointing to a reality of which our present day is but a glimmer.

So, if a pollster asks me whether I would define myself as “spiritual” or “religious” I guess I would just have to say “yes.” I’ve never felt I had to choose, and I’m not about to start.

Review: Paul Behaving Badly

paul behaving badly

Paul Behaving BadlyE. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Takes on the charge that there are many problems with Paul, among which that he is racist, pro-slavery, anti-woman, homophobic, and hypocritical, and suggests that while he behaves badly, it may be in different ways than we might think.

This is the third in a series of “behaving badly” books, the previous titles of which are God Behaving Badly (reviewed here), and Jesus Behaving Badly (reviewed here). As in the previous works, the authors take some of the common objections raised about Paul in a way that both takes the objections seriously, and shows through careful study of the biblical text and cultural context what may and may not be warranted in these objections.

The authors show that Paul indeed behaves badly, but not in the way one might think. While not coming out against slavery, his affirmation of slaves as brothers and sisters and his instructions to masters were quite counter-cultural and would have raised great objections. While he seems at points to make racist comments, he in fact made ground-breaking strides to build bridges to the Gentile world, and that any apparent anti-Semitism was really directed to a very specific group of Judeans (“Jews” in the narrowest sense) who tried to impose circumcision and legal observance on the Gentile churches Paul and his team had planted.

Their treatment of women and homosexuality are perhaps the chapters to which many will first turn. While I would have liked to see more of a treatment of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which the authors leave open to differing interpretations on the matter of women teaching, they observe the radical ways in which Paul elevated women as ministry partners, in how they were to be treated by husbands, and the very fact that they were permitted to learn. Likewise, while the authors clearly see Paul speaking against same sex relationships, they are careful to point out that Paul recognizes that persons who have been involved in these relationships are in the church, and contrary to Jewish practice, neither requires their expulsion nor execution. They also observe the difference between contemporary focus on orientation to focus on specific acts between people, and in some passages, between those who penetrate, and are penetrated, which may often be the case in master-slave relationships, particularly between masters and boy slaves in the Roman context. In summary, they write:

“When Paul denounced homosexual practice both for the active as well as the passive partner, he was behaving badly in Roman eyes. But when he welcomed both into the church as sinners in need of a savior (like the rest of us), he was behaving badly in Jewish eyes. Paul did indeed behave badly in the eyes of his culture and sometimes in the eyes of other Christians” (p. 195).

The book also addresses criticisms that Paul was a killjoy, eliminating pleasure wherever he found it. They take on the charge that Paul was a hypocrite, as in the example of circumcision, where he takes a strong stand against it, and then circumcises Timothy (in this case the answer seems to be Timothy’s partially Jewish heritage, where to not be circumcised would be a repudiation of that heritage, and an obstacle to mission in Jewish circles).

Finally, the authors deal with how Paul handles scripture, which to modern eyes often seems to be a twisting of scripture. They show, rather, that Paul was using the accepted interpretive approaches of his time–literal, midrash, allegory, and pesher among them, that would not have raised the eyebrows of his Jewish listeners.

What I most appreciated is that this is not a whitewash on Paul. The authors observe how he could be stubborn, as when he resisted prophetic counsel that he not go to Jerusalem. We should not put him on a pedestal, though we may learn from him, such as how he avoided financial entanglements, and for his courage in “behaving badly” by going counter to culture in the cause of Christ, sometimes at great personal and physical cost.

This can be a helpful book if you have a hard time reading the Pauline works, or know friends who object to Paul. We tend to see Paul through our own cultural lenses and this work helps us see Paul in his own context, and goes beyond particular verses to the whole character of Paul’s work. No alabaster saint here, but rather a very human person, whose indeed “behaved badly” at times, but in ways that we may end up admiring rather than censuring.

Book Covers

A secular age

Over the weekend, I found a used, hardbound copy of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age for twenty percent of its retail price. Needless to say I was pleased. I did encounter an interesting anomaly, though. The dust jacket is designed to cover the bottom three quarters of the book leaving the top, on which Charles Taylor’s name is embossed, uncovered on the front and spine. Needless to say, it further piqued my curiosity about a book that has long been on my “want” list.

It has been said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” which is quite true. I’ve read truly important books with prosaic covers and dull or unsubstantial books with attractive ones. But one thing can be said about book cover design–it is meant to get the reader to pick up the book and at least consider buying it (or read an online preview). I think one of the delights of a physical bookstore is the visual delight we gain just browsing the covers of books.

My wife and I are fans of the British comedy, As Time Goes By. The leading male character, Lionel Hardcastle, is an aspiring author who manages to get his memoir, My Life in Kenya, published. He is alarmed when he becomes the subject of a photo shoot for the cover dressed in khakis and bush hat with a rifle in arm and a scantily clad woman clinging to his leg. His publisher, Alistair, tells him that all this has one object–to visually say “pick me up and buy me.”

That worked like a charm for me as an young teenager picking up copies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Yes, you guessed it–Bond in some exotic setting surrounded with buxom women in bikinis. At least it worked until my dad found my stash of Bond paperbacks and tossed them.

My first edition of Lord of the Rings was the Ballantine Books paperbacks published in the 1970’s with artwork that formed a triptych. I’d heard from my friends that this was an incredible adventure fantasy, and the cover art suggested the same thing.

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I am a fan of the work of David McCullough, and one of the things I have found is that the cover art on his books always represents what I will find within the pages, something I think should be a criterion. Here is his cover for The Greater Journey, about Americans who lived in Paris during the nineteenth century.

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Last fall, while recovering from foot surgery, I re-read Anna Karenina in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It is a great translation of this sprawling Tolstoy work centered around Anna’s illicit love affair. While I didn’t buy the book because of the cover (I had heard great things about the translation–really!), the cover leaves no doubt about the sexual undercurrent of the book, without being distasteful.

anna-karenina

Over the years I’ve admired the cover art on a number of books published by InterVarsity Press (I will acknowledge that I work for the parent organization with which this publisher is associated). I do know that this reflects an intentional effort as expressed in their statement of values where they state “Aiming for thoughtful integration of the whole person and placing emphasis on the dignity of people and relationships, IVP practices beauty and stewardship in our work.”

One of their books that caught my attention over forty years ago, not only for its astute cultural analysis, but also for the graphic design of its cover was The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, which included a work of contemporary art against a white background with the title and author in a very clean font. Here it is:

Dust of Death

That tradition of aesthetically striking design combined with content has been carried on down to the present. Here is the cover of a publication I recently reviewedOur Deepest Desires:

Our Deepest Desires

I realize this is quite subjective and others may choose different, and surely better examples, but the covers of books, much like LP album covers, are a part of the reading experience. We encounter books primarily through our eyes (although touch and even smell are also part of it with physical books, and sound with audiobooks). I have to confess that some books I’ve kept not only because of content, but for how they appear on my shelves.

I’ve just scratched the surface and would love to hear about and see book covers that you love, and the role book covers play in your own reading experience.

Review: Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository PreachingJim Scott Orrick, Brian Payne, Ryan Fullerton. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for expository preaching as the means by which the people of God encounter the living God through the word of God, and an explication of the practices in preparation that lead to this in experience through the preached word.

The authors of this book both define what preaching is and set out their purpose in an opening statement in answer to the question, “what is preaching.” They respond:

“Preaching occurs when a holy man of God opens the Word of God and says to the people of God, ‘Come and experience God with me in this text.’ Encountering God through Expository Preaching is an explanation of this sentence.”

This book accomplishes what it promises and more. It sets forth the high calling, privilege, and sheer joy of preaching. The writers begin with the “holy man” and assert that godly character, and particularly that one is progressing in one’s own growth is critical to preaching that leads people to experience God. Giftedness is not enough, and often will result both in the cult of the preacher, and disappointment.

Then they turn to the defense of expository preaching, and particularly expository preaching that gives careful attention to the context of the text within the passage, the book, and ultimately the whole Bible. Particular emphasis is given to situating the text within God’s unfolding covenant purposes. This is not mere verse by verse explanation but canonical and biblical theological exposition, where the themes of scripture and the whole of scripture shape the treatment of a particular passage. While preference is given to preaching through books of scripture, they allow that topical preaching is both warranted by scripture itself, and that it may be done expositorily.

The authors conclude the first part with three chapters on the importance of the Holy Spirit in preaching that invites people to experience God. Careful exegesis and good homiletic practice are insufficient to transform our listeners. The Holy Spirit illumines both us and those who hear the Word preached. He emboldens the preacher, particularly in the face of opposing powers, he lights us up, fills us with love and gives us words. Finally, we constantly rely on Him through relying upon His Word, upon the Lord’s gospel, upon God in prayer, and upon the prayers of our people.

They then focus on early preparation. What I found is that this did not concern exegetical practice or turning exegetical outlines into preaching outlines, as so many similar texts do. To some degree they already addressed this in the chapters on context, and will in broad outline in the following chapters. But they begin by focusing on the importance of delivery, and also the reading of the preaching text–itself a form of preaching when done well. One of the most trenchant observations made here is that good teachers are able to anticipate how their words sound in the ears of their hearers.

The next three chapters are built around a little rhyme suggesting four questions each sermon must answer:

How does it fit?

What does it say?

How is it built?

Why does it stay?

“How does it fit?” answers the question of how the text fits into the overall context of the Bible. “What does it say?” focuses on what needs to be said about the message of this particular text to one’s audience. “How is it built?” looks at the way a passage develops its main idea. “Why does it stay?” is about why this passage has lasting relevance and how it may be relevant in the lives of the preacher and the hearers.

The final three chapters weigh the respective advantages and disadvantages of preaching from a manuscript, preaching from an outline, and preaching without notes. While a manuscript provides for precision of utterance, and avoids rabbit trails, and an outline helps with remembering what one wishes to say, the writers come down preferring the practice of preaching without notes. They favor this both in terms of what it requires of the preacher in terms of personal holiness, an outline based on the text, a simple and memorable outline, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. It also allows for better communication with and engagement with one’s audience, including more eye contact, and more natural movement and vocal variety.

What this book does is de-emphasize some of the more technical aspects of sermon preparation to focus on the spirituality of preaching–the character of the preacher, one’s own encounter with God in the text through the ministry of the Spirit, and reliance upon the Spirit in both preparation and proclamation.

While there is much of worth for anyone who aspires to preach, it should be noted that a premise of this book is that the office of preacher is limited to men–evident in references to “a holy man, ” and in the argument for preaching without notes that “it encourages masculinity” and that “for preaching to be effective, the preacher must be a masculine man” (p. 200).

While I do not agree with this premise, I found much of worth in this book, and particularly the strong argument for expository preaching, that this is really to expose God’s word under the power of God’s Spirit, so that the people of God may experience, worship, and obey the living God. It has been my joy to experience the living God under the expository  preaching of both holy men and women of God, and I can’t imagine why those charged with preaching the Word of God would want anything less or else.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Coal Mining

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Early coal mine (from West Virginia), Public Domain via Wikipedia

My mom always used to talk about how Youngstown was “riddled” with coal mines underneath the city and that people did not know where all of them were. I never saw a mine entrance, and this actually wasn’t part of life growing up. “Riddled” may have been exaggerated, at least in parts of the city, but the mines are a continuing reality the city and surrounding area must deal with.

In the summer of 1977, after the heavy snows of the previous winter, a series of mine collapses occurred. One home owner discovered that the floor of her two car garage at 535 Hylda Avenue in Fosterville was gone. Another mine shaft collapsed in a backyard, creating a huge hole. A third collapsed under the weight of an in-ground swimming pool. All these were over 100 years old, and virtually nothing was known about them or the location of other mines.

The presence of high quality coal as well as iron ore is one of the reasons for why Youngstown became an early site of iron and later steel manufacturing. Significant seams of high quality coal were mined in the area of Mineral Ridge, the Brier Hill area, above Lake Glacier, in the Kirkmere area, and significantly in the Fosterville area, as well as other areas in and around Youngstown. In fact, Fosterville gets its name from Colonel Foster and the Foster Coal Company which sank a number of mines on the South Side. The coal was known as “block” coal which could be used as is in iron smelting operations. It is also known as Sharon coal. There is an estimate that nearly a million tons of coal were mined on the South Side, a quarter of that from the Foster mines. Before Volney Rogers helped form Mill Creek Park, there was the Mill Creek Iron Furnace, near Pioneer Pavilion. The furnace dates back to the 1820’s and was excavated by anthropology professor Dr John White in 2003.

After the 1977 mine collapses, another Youngstown State professor, Ann Harris, in the geology department, undertook the mapping of mines around Youngstown, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. In Mahoning County alone, she found over 270 mine sites, which she has catalogued. Information for some sites includes a Google map pinpointing the site. One of the Foster shafts, was filled in part by two old Fords! Many were filled in with various forms of refuse. This information is available at the Abandoned Coal Mines website. A 2011 Vindicator article indicated that Harris, now an emeritus professor, was working with a university archivist to preserve two rooms of records including mine inspection reports and county histories.

All of this is a priceless contribution not only to the Valley’s past but also its future. It both tells the nearly lost story of Youngstown’s coal industry, and helps locate abandoned mines, which could save homeowners and builders much grief. It is important as well to contemporary efforts in recovery oil and natural gas from shale deposits in the same areas many of these mines were located. Long before Youngstown was the Steel Valley, it was the Coal Valley and it was coal which contributed to the early growth of the Valley, and still impacts its geology.

Review: These Schools Belong to You and Me

These schools

These Schools Belong to You and MeDeborah Meier and Emily Gasoi. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Summary: An argument for public schools where democracy is not simply taught but practiced by including teachers, students, and parents, as well as administrators as active participants in the educational process.

It might be argued that both public schools and democracy are under serious attack in this country. Political figures including the president and current Secretary of Education have argued for at least reducing and displacing public schools by private enterprise charter schools as more efficient education delivery systems.

The co-authors of this new book, defending the idea of democratically run public schools, argue that one of the reasons we seem to be inclined to democratically elect leaders with autocratic tendencies is that, while we may formally teach democracy in our schools, the practices that shape public education are top down and autocratic in practice, and this is what students really learn. Their rejoinder to the criticism of public schools and the rise of privatization is to offer an extended argument based on actual successes of democratically operated public schools where teachers, students, and parents all have an active role in shaping the educational experience.

Deborah Meier has been a leader in educational reform for nearly fifty years, starting a number of democratically organized schools around the country, especially in New York City. She was the founding principal of Mission Hill School in Boston, where Emily Gasoi was hired as one of the founding teachers of the school. The co-authors take turns contributing chapters of the book, with Emily Gasoi introducing the book and Deborah Meier concluding it. In these openings and closings Gasoi and Meier argue passionately for public schools as a treasure all of us should care for, especially if we care about equity among different classes and ethnic groups in society. And they argue that the best way to educate citizens to sustain a democracy is to practice it in the schools.

In the body of the Meier tends to speak to the bigger picture issues and the history of her involvement in education reform, from her initial experiences as a substitute teacher in South Chicago, her efforts in Harlem and other parts of New York to found democratically run schools, and her role at Mission Hill School, including the tension between being an education leader with so much experience, and giving teachers, students and parents a real voice in shaping the schools.

Gasoi describes her own conversion to democratic practice and how this changed her own educational practice as she learned how to teach an integrated, project-based curriculum instead of discrete subjects. She goes in depth in how students determine the particular focus of projects, integrate different subject areas into their research, and cultivate communication and presentation skills as they share their work with parents and the local community.

Together, the two of them take on the “accountability” movement which has teachers teaching to the assessment tests. They point to the Mission Hill example that focuses on depth rather than breadth of coverage, that teaches students how to learn where students do the work and teachers coach. Assessment involves the presentation and defense of an individualized portfolio, similar to a dissertation defense, rather than standardized tests. They express concern that privatized education may give parents “choice” but no real voice as they might have with a public school in their neighborhood.

It seems in our public discourse, we only hear about the private option versus poorly performing public schools. These two educators represent a group whose voices are not being heard. They think there is a better form of accountability than the top down accountability of national and state politicians making ideologically shaped decisions about education. It is to give educators, parents, and the students themselves a real stake in shaping their schools. The truth that Gasoi and Meier don’t acknowledge is that this is what religious schools and the home school movement have been saying for years (perhaps because this also is perceived as a threat to public education).

Behind this is an “educators know best” attitude that cuts parents out of the picture. They acknowledge that in the Mission Hill model, they needed to learn how to better include parents’ voices. What they really are talking about is learning how to return democracy to the neighborhood, to local communities, rather than ceding control to state and federal governments. What they don’t answer is what happens when you don’t have the good school leadership and community buy-in that was apparent at Mission Hill. Nor do they deal with the inequities of the funding models of schools and the dependency on state and federal funding to mitigate these inequities, and the corollary that with control of the purse strings come expectations of accountability.

What they do show is that there are a number of committed public educators out there who care for students, who care for quality education, and who should not be an “excluded middle” in the discussion of the future of public primary and secondary education in this country. These are people who have a proven track record of educational excellence. Both I and my son benefited greatly from such educators. If we care about the future of education and the future of our democracy, it seems we must also listen to people like Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Getting Rid of Books

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The latest installment in the Great Book Purge!

I have become increasingly serious about getting rid of books over the last few years. I find myself reaching a junction in life where the answer is not more bookshelves but less books. Right now I have six boxes of books that I will be donating in various ways. Sold off a couple other boxes of books yesterday–and didn’t buy more.

One of the things I’m discovering is that the more I cull books from my personal library, the easier it gets and the more ruthless I am about what stays. There are books I’ve not read that I just have to admit to myself, “I’ll never read that,” as interesting as it looks. There are times I’ll put a book back on the shelf, and a week later say, “no, I really do not need this.”

Increasingly, I find myself asking, “which books are like old friends, that each time I visit them, the experience is richer?” Many are books I bought years ago, and a number are classics of history, literature, and theology.

Some of the easiest to get rid of are the “trendy” books–when the trend is ten years old or older. I suspect they won’t get picked up by anyone else either. I look back and wonder why I hadn’t been more selective.

There are other books that still are good reading. But the subjects and the lessons are ones that were of greater interest in earlier seasons of life. Seems best to me to get them to people who are facing those seasons.

I wonder how others who cherish good books as I do deal with the realities of parting with them. How have you made these decisions? Was it easy, or hard? Maybe we can learn from each other.

Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk, Walter Lord. New York: Open Road Media, 2017.

Summary: A historical account of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops as the German blitzkrieg shattered Allied defenses and occupied France.

A new generation learned about the “miracle” of Dunkirk this summer through the Christopher Nolan film. In conjunction with this release, Open Road released a digital version of Walter Lord’s classic The Miracle of Dunkirk. Lord is most famous for his highly readable account of A Night to Remember about the sinking of the Titanic, but also published a number of histories of various aspects of World War II, including the truly miraculous evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk and its nearby beaches between May 26 and June 4.

The Allied line had collapsed in front of the German blitzkrieg, and nearly 400,000 were isolated and driven toward the French coast. It would be a huge debacle and demoralizing blow, especially for the British, if these forces were surrounded and captured. At this point, no amphibious craft existed to evacuate them from the beaches and no plan existed to do so.

Lord’s account covers the various facets of the unfolding “miracle.” There is the decision to evacuate and launch Operation Dynamo and the resultant misunderstandings that occurred with the French. We watch the scramble of Admiral Ramsey to mobilize anything that floated from destroyers to tugboats and pleasure yachts to evacuate soldiers. Initially, they expected to evacuate only 45,000 before the Germans completed their conquest.

Several factors contributed then to this miracle. One was Hitler’s puzzling order for the advancing German forces to halt for a couple of critical days between May 24 and 27, allowing more Allied forces to retreat. Then there was reliance on Goering’s Luftwaffe, which was devastating at points but could not fly during overcast weather, which prevailed during several days of the evacuation.

“Miracle” might give a sense of a smooth running operation. It was anything but and Lord describes the mishaps that resulted from a wrecked port, efforts to ferry men off the beaches around Dunkirk and the eventual use of the mole, or breakwater, that allowed boats to berth, load and depart with the greatest efficiency. Likewise, there was bad blood between the British and the French, and at first evacuations were primarily of British troops until they agreed that it would be “arm in arm.” Eventually about 100,000 French were evacuated along with over 230,000 British.

Part of the story was the resistance of British and French troops (Belgium had surrendered, leaving a hole in the lines to be plugged, stretching the defenders further), a number of whom spent the rest of the war as prisoners, especially among the French. The resistance they put up, along with the unwillingness of the Germans to risk their tanks in the marshy lands around Dunkirk, bought precious extra time for the evacuation to mobilize, which succeeded in evacuating a peak of 68,000 on May 31. The other part of the story was the heroism of not only the naval forces but the many civilians who faced German fighters, bombers, mines, and torpedoes. Lord tells stories of men who had to evacuate more than one ship enroute to England.

The RAF’s Spitfires also bought some respite for the shipping when they engaged the Luftwaffe. At the same time, Lord describes the balancing act that they had to play between providing critical air cover, and maintaining sufficient forces for the anticipated defense of England.

Lord portrays the different ways the evacuation was seen by Germany, France, and England. Germany didn’t think England would return. France felt betrayed. But for England, and their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, the “miracle” represent a resolve to fight on, and a signal achievement in recovering such a significant part of their fighting core, later to be joined by their American allies. While France was lost, and with it, vast amounts of arms and equipment, all was not lost. And that was enough to fight on.

Lord’s account covers all sides of the battle, British, French and German, and the land, air and sea elements. He captures both the overall development, and the stories of the fighting men and civilians who all were part of the miracle. His notes and bibliography detail the mountains of research that he distilled into a manageable and riveting narrative. If you haven’t seen the movie, get the book, and it will make more sense of the movie when you do. And it will help you understand the first of the series of turning points that culminated in D-Day.

Review: Eleanor of Aquitane

Eleanor of Aquitane

Eleanor of AquitaneAlison Weir. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Summary: A highly readable account of the life of Eleanor of Aquitane, married to two different kings, mother of ten children, and “a tough, capable, and resourceful woman who travelled widely throughout the known world and was acquainted with most of the great figures of the age.”

Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204) was probably the most formidable woman of her age, and would have been impressive in any age. Alison Weir’s historical biography brings her to life, and leaves one with the impression that she was likely at least the equal if not superior to any of the powerful men in her life.

At roughly fifteen, she became Duchess of Aquitane, controlling territory that was about one-third of France. She was no wall flower. She was reputed to have had an affair with Geoffrey, father of Henry II, who warned Henry about her. As one of the most eligible of women, she attracted the attention of Louis VII of France, more inclined to be a monk than a King. Yet even he recognized how strategic this marriage would be for control of French territory against his rivals, including young Henry II. After fifteen years in which she bore him two daughters but no sons and went on a botched Crusade to the Holy Land with him, they finally secured an annulment on the basis of consanguinity (they were fourth cousins).

She was quickly taken up by Henry II, a man who did know how to fight and rule. Together, they controlled nearly half of France as well as England. It begins auspiciously with their crowning in England. But it was a tumultuous relationship, no doubt due to Henry’s womanizing. Nevertheless, they would succeed in having eight children together, five sons and three daughters. They would weather the assassination of Thomas Becket but become increasingly estranged after Henry’s affair with Rosamund. Eleanor would remain in Poitiers for five years, fostering a court of troubadours and “courtly love.”

Henry II grew increasingly estranged from his sons as well, refusing to delegate any of his power to them, and Eleanor supported them in revolt against him, which failed. She spent the next sixteen years in prison in England, until Henry’s death, apart from a brief period with him in Normandy.

You would think that would be the curtain call for a sixty-seven year old widow. Not for Eleanor. Her son Richard becomes king, and while he is off on another Crusade, she capably rules England in his stead, as well as administering her own duchy. She raises a ransom for his release when a rival ruler imprisons him, and survives him. When her other son, King John ascends to the throne, she embarks on a perilous journey to Castile at age 77, surviving kidnapping, to select a bride for the French King Phillip from the daughters of of the King and Queen of Castile. The death of a warrior escort at a mercenary’s hand left her weary in body and spirit. She retreated to Abbey of Fontevrault, where her husband Henry, son Richard, and daughter-in-law Isabella (John’s wife) were buried. After taking the veil as a nun, she died and joined them in 1204.

This, in briefest outline, is the life Alison Weir fills out in as much detail as can be founded in what sources remain after 800 years. Parts of the book focus more on Henry and his sons, more than on Eleanor because of years where very little was recorded, particularly the years of imprisonment. She also, while acknowledging the possibility of Eleanor’s romantic involvements, and the limits imposed on her as a woman, wife, and mother, portrays a strong figure who exercised shrewd and capable influence, sometimes checking the worst impulses of her husbands and sons, and using her power well for the welfare of her lands. She addressed popes, and was personally acquainted with most of the rulers of the world in her time, and helped lead a Crusade. She fostered the literary culture of the day and was a major benefactor of the Abbey of Fontevrault, which served as a significant religious center for nearly seven centuries. Weir’s highly readable account brings Eleanor out of the mists of time so that we “moderns” may appreciate her greatness.